The Rabbi's Study

The Last Words of the First Book

I am always saddened when coming to the end of Sefer Breishit, the Book of Genesis. It’s my favorite book, and in my biased opinion the greatest piece of literature humans have ever produced. And while I know I can learn from its wisdom each and every day (and I do!), it feels like saying goodbye to a dear friend whom you know you will not see for at least a year. The exciting part about ending Sefer Breishit is that I have no idea what will change in my life and perspective in the coming year to awaken new understandings and insights that will make these very familiar words and figures fresh and alive. While I cannot pinpoint the reason, or name exactly what in me has changed to open my eyes in this year to the final verse of Sefer Breishit, the last words of the first book seem especially profound and significant right now.

In Parashat Va’yeḥi, we come to the end of Yaakov’s life and engage in the blessings he offers his sons and two of his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, at his deathbed. It is emotional, and moving, and complex. At the end of the Torah portion, we also have the death of Yosef. There is so much in this Torah portion, each segment could fill volumes, but I want to focus on the depth of wisdom in the final 11 words (in Hebrew, the number of English words depends on the translator!):

Yosef died at one hundred and ten years old; they embalmed him, and he was placed in a coffin in Mitzrayim. (Genesis 50:26)

“Yosef died at one hundred and ten years old”

When Yaakov meets Pharaoh in Parashat Vayigash, and Pharaoh asks him his age, Yaakov responds:

…the days of the years of my migrations are one hundred and thirty years; few and difficult have been the days of the years of my life, and they did not reach the days of the years of the lives of my ancestors in the days of their migrations. (Genesis 47:9)

Yaakov is not wrong (albeit he seems to be focusing on his negative experiences rather than his incredible accomplishments and perseverance) – Yitzhak, his father, lived to be 180; Avraham, his grandfather, lived to be 175; Terah, his great-grandfather, lived to be 205; and we could go back all the way through the Torah genealogy to Adam HaRishon, but the point is that every one of his ancestors lived in excess of 130 years. But not his children…

Yosef lived 110 years, and while his days were relatively few, and he experienced his difficulties, the next generation after Yaakov was able to heal some of the trauma of the previous generation. Yes, the Torah usually tells us the age of a figure at their death, but in this instance it is also an implicit suggestion of healing generational wounds.

“they embalmed him”

All of the Patriarchs are torn in their identities. Avraham is torn between his love of God and his love of his son. Yitzhak is torn between his sense of self and his stunted development as a result of his trauma. Yaakov is torn between his two personae: Yaakov and Yisrael. While not technically a Patriarch (of which there are three), the same motif can be said of Yosef – he is torn between his identity as the beloved son of Yaakov and the trusted servant (more on that term later) of Pharaoh. Before Yaakov dies, he commands his sons to not allow him to be buried in Mitzrayim, but to be buried in the family tomb at Hevron. Yosef, on his own volition, has Yaakov embalmed. Just as Yaakov is embalmed, so too is Yosef embalmed. This is a symbol of Yosef’s own dual identity. After all, if he was 17 when he was brought down to Mitzrayim, and he died there at 110, he lived as a Mitzri for 93 years! And yet, tradition teaches that he observed Shabbat the whole time…

“he was placed in a coffin”

A number of the commentators note that it is of great significance that Yosef not interred in the ground or in a tomb in order that a future generation might be able to uphold Yosef’s what Yosef swore to the Children of Yisrael, that God would take note of them and they would bring his bones from Mitzrayim to the land which had been sworn to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov. The Midrash teaches that each generation which buried the previous was greater in certain ways, so that Yitzhak, who was blessed with never having to leave the land, merited to bury Avraham; that Yaakov, who was blessed with many children, merited to bury Yitzhak; that Yosef, who was blessed with incredible power and prestige, buried Yaakov; and that it will be Moshe Rabbeinu, God’s trusted servant, who will come to bury Yosef, Pharaoh’s trusted servant. And who buried Moshe? None other but God! Yosef being buried in a coffin ensures the fulfillment of the promises made.

“in Mitzrayim”

One might see this final word as not positive, however the tradition is that every aliyah must end on a positive note. Therefore, it stands to reason that this must be a positive sentiment. So what makes it positive? Perhaps it is that everything worked according to plan – Avraham had his offspring, Yitzhak received his blessing, Yaakov was protected, Yosef secured his power, and there is surety that God will fulfill the promise. It might not look like what we expect or want, but it is destiny.

Some commentators conclude their contributions to each book of the Torah with a poem. The one written by Rabbeinu Yaakov ben Asher, the Ba’al HaTurim, offers us this to conclude his commentary on Sefer Breishit:

Sefer Breishit is perfect. A praise to God who tells us the end from the start. For Whom there is no beginning or end, from the wellspring of all that has been concealed from the start. Who supported the hand of God’s servant with God’s kindness in his completing all of Sefer Breishit.

By ending the book of the origins of the Jewish people, we are reminded of the mystery of yeridah l’tzorekh aliyah – that one must descend in order to ascend. The final word of Sefer Breishit reminds us that Mitzrayim is not final, but is a necessary element of the journey to Sinai, and to the hopeful promise of redemption for which we strive, struggle, and pray.

Sharing is caring
  • 4

Check out the "Rabbi's Study" archive for Rabbi Goldstein's previous posts.